After the Falls picks up where Catherine Gildiner’s best-selling 1999 memoir, Too Close to the Falls, leaves off, chronicling the author’s teens in suburban Buffalo, where her family moved in 1960 to start fresh after her expulsion from Catholic school in Lewiston, NY. Readers of the first book will recall that in an attempt to keep Gildiner out of trouble, her pharmacist father put her to work at the age of four delivering prescriptions with Roy, an African-American with whom she shared both adventures and friendship. Gildiner’s mother, refusing to play the role of a stereotypical 1960s woman, never learned to cook or type, and urged her daughter to follow in her footsteps, lest she end up unwillingly doing both someday.
The first part of After the Falls focuses on Gildiner’s experiences in high school, her early encounters with boys, and her first jobs. During this period, her quick wit frequently riffs on her family’s foibles or ineptitude. Her father inexplicably decides to build a bar in their rec room (referred to as the “reek room” because of its mouldy smell), filling bottles with coloured liquids because no one in the household drinks. In another memorable scene, Gildiner accidentally sets fire to the doughnut shop where she works while filling in for the cook.
The book’s second half deals with weightier topics: her father’s brain tumour, her college experience, her work in the civil rights movement, and her first love, an African-American poet and football player with skeletons in his closet.
Much of the charm of Gildiner’s first book lay in the interplay of personalities. Here, she presents her story as a road map to an era, but when she brings in the major events of the time – JFK’s assassination, for example – she frequently relies on platitudes about collective loss of innocence or statements along the lines of “things would never be the same.” Gildiner makes much of her own “eccentricity” (“I wore perfect clothes and perfect hair so as to camouflage my essential bizarreness”), but in the absence of any real evidence (don’t all teens feel like outcasts?) such assertions smack of self-satisfaction.
Gildiner is not a strong writer – her dialogue is particularly awkward at times – but her chutzpah is undeniable. The author’s brazenness will, at any rate, make this book’s shortcomings appear of little consequence to her loyal readership.